And yes, you did read that correctly. ‘Long May You Run’ from the 1976 Neil Young album Decade, was written to commemorate a formative moment in the musician’s life while paying tribute to the vehicle that allowed it to happen.
On the surface, ‘Long May You Run’ sounds like a tender ballad for a friend or perhaps a long lost lover. In the first verse, Young sings: “We’ve been through / some things together /With trunks of memories / still to come/ We found things to do / in stormy weather / Long may you run”. That reference to a “trunk” full of memories, however, suggests that Young’s affection isn’t necessarily for a human companion.
‘Long May You Run’, written after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young parted ways, in fact, pays tribute to Young’s beloved Pontiac hearse, ‘Mort’ (AKA ‘Mortimer Hearseburg’). Neil Young and Stephen Stills met in L.A. at the dawn of the 1960s, first working together in Buffalo Springfield and then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This track was originally a collaboration between Young and Stills. While it might seem a little odd to sing such as tender ballad about something made of steel and rubber, let’s not forget that Neil drove Mort from Toronto to Los Angeles in the early ’60s. It was here that he met Stephen Still and formed Buffalo Springfield.
But ‘Long May You Run’ is more than a tribute, it’s a eulogy. Neil was in Canada, driving Mort up to Sudbury when the car started making some worrying noises. After sputtering its last fume-laced breath, Mort conked out in Blind River. It was late. There was nobody around. Mort was a goner. “Well, it was back in Blind River, in 1962, when I last saw you alive,” Young sings mournfully. The musician’s potent grief quickly moves beyond sentimentality, becoming almost comical in its sobriety.
The ballad of Mort and Neil is of course intentionally ironic. Indeed, the whole Stills-Young collaboration was never taken particularly seriously – least of all by the musicians themselves. Stephen Stills and Neil Young formed the Stills-Young band in 1976 and that same year released an album called Long May You Run. Stills wrote four songs for the album, with Young contributing five songs in total including the title track. However, the project quickly stalled when the pair had a falling out nine days into the supporting tour. Young abandoned the project, leaving Stills with nothing but a telegram, which read: “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”